This is the follow up novel to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning The Undergroud Railroad. The novel takes place primarily onsite of a boys juvenile detention center in Florida. The novel begins with the unearthing of a collective grave by a team of anthropological students called in after remains were found in an environmental study before a new construction project. The resulting media coverage makes its way across the country and the various surviving men react in different ways. The narrative settles on Ellwood Curtis and we move backward in time to his life prior to and during his incarceration at the prison.
This book contains a really powerful subject matter and is harrowing in its events and details. The real-life school on which this novel is based was a truly horrifying place that tortured and murders untold numbers of boys during its time. We’re especially sensitive to the stories of schools that torture kids because of kids’ inherent vulnerability and because of the role schools are supposed to inhabit in our lives. While all this is true, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from this book and let down by its handling of the subject matter. I don’t think it was treated inappropriately, but I also don’t think this novel pulled out any truths about the nature of torture and incarceration, human nature and loss, and other ideas it explores any more than a more straightforward history of the school would. There’s a tension here between a powerful subject and a powerful novel. It has the former, but for me, not as much the latter. And because of the powerful subject matter, I am more disappointed at the resulting novel.